Home >  Dartmouth College Library Bulletin > November 1992 >

Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Julia Brace

MOTHER, why don't you light a lamp? Why won't you answer? Oh! will it never be day?!'1 But for the little girl who lay on her sick-bed and clutched the familiar hand in her confusion, a night had fallen for which there would be no dawn, and a silence so profound it would never be broken in the more than seventy years that remained of her life. Her name was Julia Brace. She became the first deaf-blind person in America to receive instruction; and her story is told, in part, in a sheet of manuscript now in the Dartmouth College Library, a gift of the late Sanborn Brown. The manuscript is a portion of the 1842 annual report of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe to the corporation of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. In it he describes his experiments in teaching three deaf-blind students: Laura Bridgman, a native of Hanover, New Hampshire; Oliver Caswell; and Julia Brace.2 The name of Laura Bridgman is remembered today as Dr. Howe's greatest teaching success, as well as for the indirect role her accomplishments played in opening the doors of education for the twentieth-century deaf-blind humanitarian, Helen Keller.3 That of Julia Brace is all but forgotten. Yet it was because of a visit to the Hartford Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf), where Dr. Howe met Julia Brace, that he conceived a plan for the education of the deaf-blind and undertook the training of Laura Bridgman, Oliver Caswell, and eventually Julia Brace herself.4

Julia was born on 13 June 1807, in that part of Hartford County, Connecticut, that is now Newington. Her parents, John and Rachel Brace were, according to Lydia Sigourney, 'exceedingly poor,' her father being a cobbler of very modest circumstances. Nevertheless, her early childhood appears to have been entirely normal for a girl of her station. By the middle of her fifth year, she had been sent to school and could read and spell words of two syllables. She had learned 'plain sewing,' had had rudimentary religious training, and had, according to Lewis Weld, learned to use when angry 'some very exceptionable words.' She had also apparently begun to assist her mother in the care of her younger siblings. About the middle of her fifth year, however, she contracted typhus fever, which in the first week of her illness robbed her entirely of both sight and hearing.5 For some time thereafter, as is characteristic in such cases, she continued to speak, in an attempt to communicate her wants and her frustrations to those about her; but in time, from want of hearing speech, her own faded into virtual silence.

Throughout her long convalescence, she continued to reside with her parents; and gradually she adjusted to her new situation. Signs were devised for communicating elemental needs and commands, and for such emotions as approval and pleasure--and their opposites. As her strength returned, she began to explore anew familiar surroundings, using her sense of touch, and an apparently unusually keen sense of smell, to orient herself and move with assurance about the household and her father's shop. She learned to weave small articles from the scraps of discarded leather from his trade and to assist in simple household chores. And we are told that, as before her illness, she took an active part in the care of the younger children of the household, even presuming to discipline them for infractions of behavioral rules. One witness describes her not unnatural belief that smaller individuals were expected to obey larger ones--a belief of which she was only disabused when she exceeded her own mother in size.6

Eventually, through the intervention of some charitable individuals, 'her parents were at length relieved from the burden of her maintenance' and she was sent to 'board with an elderly matron, who kept a school for small children.'7 There she was apparently trained to sew and knit, and, according to Mrs. Sigourney, made frustrated attempts to copy her fellow students in reading books and newspapers. No attempt was made at this stage, however, to teach her language, beyond the simple signs that evolved for communicating commands and the signs for approval or correction.

Little more is known of her early training until, just short of her eighteenth birthday, she became a charity student at the Hartford Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb. The asylum had been founded in 1817 by the Reverend Thomas H. Gallaudet, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, and other public-spirited Hartford citizens as a means for establishing the system of the French Abbe Sicard for the education of the deaf in America. Perhaps through the intervention of Lydia and Charles Sigourney or other early benefactors of the asylum, and coincident with the death of Julia's father in 1825, she was enrolled as a student on the eleventh of June in that year.

Though Julia was described by the sentimental Mrs. Sigourney, who wrote an early and widely-reprinted account of her for children, as leading a life of 'regular habits' and 'perfect contentment,' the testimony of more objective observers suggests that initially firm measures were sometimes required to conform the recalcitrant young woman to the routines of the asylum. Martha Dudley, matron of the asylum at the time of Julia's admission, characterizes her as initially 'passionate and violent, impatient of control,' but notes that in time she became 'docile' and 'eager to comply with the wishes of others.'8 Most witnesses agree that Julia quickly oriented herself to her new surroundings after her initial tour with the matron and independent exploration that included, according to some of the accounts directed at children, stooping to smell the thresholds.9 And early accounts unite to marvel at the ease with which she mastered her environment and moved about the asylum with accuracy.

A notation on her official record at the Hartford Asylum states that Julia Brace 'never received much instruction here'; but this, in the light of our broader contemporary views of education, would seem to be a masterpiece of understatement. In terms of merely academic instruction, the official record is probably an accurate statement of fact. Julia was taught to manipulate wooden letters and pins on a cushion to produce words, and she learned to associate words with objects. But there seems to have been little attempt made in the 1820's and 1830's to carry her intellectual training beyond that point. The usual explanation in the surviving sources can be summed up in the prevailing belief that further training would yield her no appreciable benefit. From that point of view it would, of course, be difficult to justify the cost of the extensive personal attention required to progress further with an individual well through her teens before the experiment was begun. But she had learned to communicate, apparently with considerable proficiency, in the arbitrary signs commonly used in the deaf community, for these she could receive and transmit by touch. The degree to which she had mastered this mode of communication is attested in an anecdote recorded by matron Dudley in an 1837 reminiscence:

I once told her to go up stairs and take off her boots and put them in the closet, on a high shelf by the side of her bandbox, leave them for the winter, and put on her shoes. I was curious to see, if she understood all I said. She instantly laid down her work, rose, and stood a moment; I took her hands again and made the same signs. She went directly up stairs and did as I bade her.10

What she may have understood of abstractions is less clear. Considerable speculation was expended on her religious growth, and attempts were made to develop in her a sense of God as creator--apparently without success. From her understanding of individuals as makers of objects and herself as maker of some of them (like her knitted goods), she was encouraged to extrapolate to a being who was the creator of all things. 11 This she was apparently unable to do. Perhaps, unlike Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller for whom the relgious dimension was of compelling signIficance, she felt no need to.

She had, however, a passion for order and a sense of righteous justice, which life at the asylum served to systematize and regulate. Soon Julia was assuming regular duties in the management of the household: the washing and laying out of eating utensils, the care of her own clothing and belongings, the making of beds in the girls' dormitory, as well as the needlework that filled much of her time. A curiosity to the many visitors who thronged the asylum, especially in warm weather, Julia was often interrupted at her work. If the interruptions became frequent, she showed signs of impatience, and understandably her deportment on such occasions was, in the words of Lewis Weld, 'sometimes less amiable than her friends could desire.' She seems, as well, to have had a clear and exacting sense of'mine and shine.' Many witnesses attest to her reluctance to accept material goods from another, particularly a stranger, without clear assurance that the object in question was truly a gift. They add that her sense of gratitude was appropriate and her recollection of her benefactors remained longer than that for other individuals. But if she remembered her benefactors with pleasure, she was capable of enmity toward those who transgressed her code; and, like Laura Bridgman's, her sense of right and wrong could be inflexible and absolute. Matron Dudley recalls the particular enmity of Julia Brace toward another student whom she calls 'D.,' occasioned by the latter's theft of Julia's money. During Julia's early days at the asylum, a public collection box received contributions to assist with Julia's support, and having an understanding of the function of money, she was at first allowed to keep the box's contents until needed for a purchase.

D. had stolen Julia's money. I do not now recollect the amount, be it more or less, it was in small pieces. You know Julia is very fond of money and miser-like, she counted it often and failed not immediately to discover when any pieces were missing. On this occasion she stamped with such violence that I ran up stairs to see what was the matter. She told me of the loss. Suspicion fell on D. I made her get all the money she had and give it to Julia. She [i.e., Julia] sat down by a table, selected all her own, and gave the rest to the owner.12

Indeed, perhaps the most important thing that Julia Brace learned at the Hartford Asylum she learned in company with staff and fellow students: to live together in a community where the needs and desires of both individual and group must be accommodated. She learned to form friendships, to share joys and sorrows in appropriate ways, to work out differences by compromise or appeal to authority;and, to some degree at least, she seems to have entered into the community activities and become a part of its life. To the reunion that Lydia Sigourney held in Hartford in August of 1826 for the alumnae of her school, Mrs. Sigourney notes in her journal of the event, 'fifty of the deaf and dumb young ladies, including the blind one, came out to share in our happiness.'13 Other contemporary accounts describe her taking pleasure in boat trips, carriage rides, and social events. In the samples of students' writing reproduced in the annual reports of the asylum during the 18305, Julia's name frequently appears. Sometimes it is a passing reference as in this 1836 letter: 'The teachers and pupils are all well, and Julia Brace likewise.' Sometimes it is coupled with expressions of pity that Julia could not see or 'learn' or did not know God; sometimes, with a sense of marvel that she could sew and knit. But all suggest that Julia Brace had learned to live in and share the life of the Hartford Asylum. 14

In the mid 1830's, Julia Brace had also begun to attract the attention of educators and humanitarians throughout New England. In 1828 the Hartford poet-educator Lydia Sigourney had published an account of Julia for children in the Juvenile Miscellany that was widely circulated; and the 'deaf, dumb and blind girl' was the subject of three of her poems in the thirties. 15 In 1837 Lewis Weld appended a lengthy description of this remarkable young woman to the annual report of the Hartford Asylum, which also published a series of reminiscences of Julia by the former matron. These were freely copied or excerpted by the popular press, especially the religious and juvenile periodicals.16 Julia Brace had become a celebrity.

Visiting Hartford at about this time and again in the autumn ot 1841, Dr. Samuel Gridlev Howe found encouragement for his own efforts to educate the blind and the deaf-blind in Julia Brace. On his 1841 visit he brought with him Laura Bridgman, who by now had been under his tutelage for four years and could 'talk with her fingers.' Impressed by what Howe had accomplished with his young protegee, Lydia Sigourney urged him to undertake a similar experiment with Julia. By now, however, Julia Brace was nearly thirty-five years old, and Howe was far from optimistic. Hoping that Laura's enthusiasm for learning would stimulate a similar hunger in her older counterpart, Howe adds a word of caution in responding to the poet's request:

It may be that she is too old, that the brain has lost by long inactivity its fiexibility, and susceptibility even; but I trust not. At any rate, it would be worth while to make the attempt . . .17

Application was made to her guardian at the asylum to permit Julia to visit Boston; and on 6 April 1842 Julia Brace was enrolled as a student in the Perkins Institution and the experiment in teaching her to read and spell was begun. In his annual report of that year Dr. Howe expresses a guarded optimism about the prospects for Julia's education. As one might expect, progress with a student of that age, whose habits and horizons were by then fixed within relatively simple boundaries, was slow. Howe's report for 1842, part of which composes the Dartmouth College manuscript, reveals, however, that Julia Brace was both willing and able to learn, and that she had demonstrated the capacity for constructing a simple sentence. But her memory proved to be short; and the long habit of communicating in the language of signs encouraged her to lapse into that mode of expression wherever possible.18 Reality had to be faced: they had begun too late.

One year from her enrollment at Perkins, Julia Brace returned to Hartford to resume her life as a paying boarder at the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb.19 There she lived quietly until around 1860, when she left the asylum to take up residence with a married sister in Bloomfield, Connecticut. There she died on 12 August 1884, and was buried in the West Hill Cemetery. Her grave is unmarked and her name is all but forgotten: in Hartford, in Bloomfield, at the asylum where she lived so long.20 Not surprisingly her memory has been overshadowed by the spectacular achievements of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller. But for them, and the sight- and hearing- impaired from her day to this, the doors of opportunity were opened wider and sooner by the achievements of Julia Brace and those who befriended her.


1.The quotation is paraphrased from Lewis Weld, 'Letter of Mr. Weld. To the President and Directors of the Asylum,' in American Asylum at Hartford for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, Twenty-first Annual Report, 13 May 1887 (Hartford, Conn.: Hudson and Skinner, 1837),15.

2.Samuel Gridley Howe, 'Julia Brace.' Manuscript draft of first portion of Appendix C of the Eleventh Annual Report of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. Sanborn Brown Autograph Collection, Special Collections, Dartmouth College Library.

3.It was through reading an accounr of Laura Bridgman in Dickens s American Notes that the parents of Helen Adams Keller applied to the Perkins Institution for a teacher for their deaf- blind daughter.

4.Samuel Gridley Howe, Appendix A, Ninth Annual Report of the Perkins Institution (1840), 25; Mary Swift Lamson, Life and Education of Laura Dewey Bridgman (Boston: New England Publishing Company, 1878), 4.

5.For information on Julia Brace's early history and the illness that destroyed her sight and hearing see Weld, 'Letter,' 15- 16; Obituary notice, Hartford Courant, 14 August 1884; Archives of the American School for the Deaf, Hartford, Connecticut, courtesy of Winfield McChord Jr.; Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, 'The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Girl,' Juvenile Miscellany 4, no. ~ (May 1828): I28-I29.

6. William Channing WoodEridge, cited in Tenth Annual Report of the Perkins Institution (I84I), 59.

7.Sigourney, Juvenile Miscellany (May 1828), 130.

8.Ibid., and Martha Dudley, 'Letter of Miss Dudley, Former Matron of the American Asylum . . .' in American Asylum at Hartford for the Education and Instruction of the Deafand Dumb, Twenty-first Annual Report, p. 16.

9. Sigourney, Juvenile Miscellany (May 1828), 134; and 'Manual Alphabet, Used by the Deaf and Dumb; with Notices of Laura Bridgman and Julia Brace, Who are Deaf, Dumb, and Blind' (New York: Kiggins and Kellogg, cat 1855), 13.

10.. Dudley, Letter, in American Asylum, Twenty-frst Annual Report, 30.

11.Edwards A. Park, 'Introduction,' in Lamson, Laura Dewey Bridgman, xviii-xix.

12. Dudley, Letter, in American Nylum, Twenty- first Annual Report, 3I.

13. sigourney, 'Minutes of the society for the Former Scholars of Mrs. sigourney, manuscript journal in the collections of the connecticut Historical society.

14.American Asylum at Hartford for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, Annual Reports, 1832-l850.

15.. sigourney, 'The Deaf, Dumb and slind girl,' Juvenile Miscellany 4, no. 2 (May 1828), 127-141, reprinted in Religious Intelligencer 13, no. 11 (2 August 1828), 161-164; 'Meeting of the slind with the Deaf, Dumb, and slind and 'On seeing the Deaf, Dumb and slind Girl, sitting for Her Portrait' in Poems; by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney (Philadelphia Key & siddle, 1834), 252+253, 197-197 'The Deaf, Dumb and slind Girl of the American Asylum . . . in Zinzendor~ and Other Poems (New York Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1836), 86-89.

16. Weld's report was reprinted in abridged form as 'The Story of Julia srace in Parleys Magazine 5 (1837): 242-247. Matron Dudley's recollections were reprinted in the Youth's Companion Il, no. 47 (6 April 1838): 185-186. Both were freely abridged or excerpted in other juvenile and denominational publications of that period.

,p>17. Samuel Gridley Howe, Letter to Lydia Sigourney, 3 September 1841. Hoadley Collection, Connecticut Historical Society.

18. Samuel Gridley Howe, in Tenth and Eleventh Annual Reports of the Perkins Institution, cited above.

19. The Twenty- fith Annual Report of the American Asylum (1837), 6-7, notes that Julia Brace had fallen heir to a legacy expected to yield an annuity of two hundred dollars from the late Martha Johonnot, a 'benevolent lady' of Salem, Massachusetts. This sum was believed to be 'ample for Julias support.'Mrs. Sigourney's poem, cited in note 15, is evidence that Julia Brace once sat for her portrait, but it has apparently been lost.